In the original Hebrew the meaning of sin was “to miss the mark”: to not fulfill what was meant to be, to lose an opportunity. Yet I hear sin used more often in relation to the attractive things of the world, such as calling chocolate “sinful”. The same is said for places where beautiful people wear little clothing, or if the environment is too pleasant, etc.
I can understand why moralists would frown on things if their morals are against it. There are food moralists, for example, who are against chocolate and the refined sugar it contains. But why call it sinful? Even if it tempts people away from a rigid obedience, how does this cause a person to “miss the mark”?
Maybe in these cases the mark is the standard itself, making “sinful” whatever causes a person to fall short of that standard. However, this makes sense only if the standard is the goal. If the standard is only a means to an end, “missing the mark” is missing the end which that morality is helping us to reach. For a food moralist whose objective is health, a sin is not what violates their regimen, but what detracts from health: if they have an opportunity to achieve enduring health, but do things that go against the goal, they will have “missed the mark”. Thus if one chooses a morality appropriate to a certain goal, “sin” is whatever harms that goal – most likely from violating the morality intended to achieve it.
Consider the goal of happiness – assuming there exists a morality to take us there. A sin would then be whatever makes us unhappy. How different from the idea that the things we enjoy should make us feel ashamed because they are “sinful”! Either it is sinful because it makes us unhappy (and not the other way around) or it makes us happy and we call it sinful because we have another goal in mind – such as contrasting present good with future good.
The moment of discernment should be the instant of sadness, or when the goal is lost. As despair begins, I think, “I’ve sinned somehow”, because I’ve missed the mark I was aiming for. When I feel elated, the opposite thought comes to mind. Or if something makes me feel good that later provokes more pain than its joy, intellectually I remove time and recognize that what’d appeared helpful to my goal was actually harming it.
To move this to the religious degree, I assume from Scripture that everything I see around me, including my own soul, has been created to a purpose. To sin in this context is to fail to reach that purpose. Since man is the only element I’m aware of that has free agency, only man can make a choice which could be called sinful – since all other parts of reality have been determined to play their part.
If a man can sin by failing to reach his appointed level in this scheme, it begs the question: why should we care? Teleology is well and good, but does it indicate anything we can actually benefit from? Here I would say that fulfillment and happiness are both of a kind, being justified in their condition by the condition itself. To miss the mark is to miss out on something that could have been achieved, the loss of which is felt only once we become conscious of what was lost.
The misuse of our being’s capacity, then, is the religious meaning of sin. We were created to a certain end, but we can “miss” that end through negligence. A man sins who does not make the best use of himself and the time he’s been given – not simply the one who avoids the conditions leading to sin. Sinfulness is a failure to engage ourselves fully in the process of creation.
What that process is, and how we fit into it, is so individual I don’t think anyone can knowingly say if another is sinning or not. The knowledge of our purpose is so far beyond words that this, I believe, is where morality establishes itself: as a guideline to use in place of knowledge. To the degree that we can trust the guideline to assist our reality, we can say that failing the guideline is a sin. Here we have the contemporary usage of the term: to describe things that might cause us to fail in faithfulness to our goal. But the nomenclature of sin these days has become very indirect, and has taken on the sense of an adjective when properly it should be only a verb.